Networks finally try the novel approach

When it comes to bestsellers, TV and feature film executives appear to be on the same page.

Studio brass took notice when adaptations of recent Michael Crichton and Robert James Waller books – “Congo” and “The Bridges of Madison County,” respectively – delivered big opening-weekend box office numbers. “Congo” had no big-name stars and few positive reviews.

Similarly, the major networks, in their quest to create marquee franchises, are clamoring for material from bestselling authors. Competing in a 50-plus channel environment, the networks are more willing than in the past to pay top dollar for prestige product that lends sizzle to their brand. And ancillary markets such as overseas sales and homevideo help producers pay the added freight.

A number of high-profile literary properties have recently been acquired for TV, including a handful of deals commanding the kind of seven-figure coin that in the past an author could only expect if his work went theatrical.

A recent deal cut for Larry McMurtry’s “Dead Man’s Walk,” a prequel to his “Lonesome Dove,” shows how much a top writer with a track record can command from the small screen. According to industry sources, McMurtry has a package deal on the miniseries for ABC that will net him “between $2 million and $3 million” for rights to the book and writing fees.

A Texas-size deal

Meanwhile, the bestselling Texan’s deal is structured to give him as much as half of the revenues of homevideo sales, and upwards of 10% of any gross revenues once licensing fees have exceeded a certain amount, roughly equivalent to production costs,” according to an industry source.

The McMurtry deal may be unique in its riches, but high six-and even seven-figure deals have become commonplace. Last week, “Border Music,” the bestselling follow-up novel by “Bridges of Madison County” author Robert James Waller, was acquired by LGS Entertainment, Von Zerneck-Sertner Films and Hallmark Entertainment for more than $1 million. It will be produced as an ABC miniseries.

The fact that “Border Music” could command $1 million from the small screen indicates how the market has changed. Just as the conventional wisdom in the theatrical community holds that Michael Crichton and John Grisham are “star” authors who can open a movie, there’s now a growing list of star authors who spell TV ratings gold.

The club has grown

TV’s marquee scribes were once an exclusive club made up of writers such as Danielle Steel, Jackie Collins and Sidney Sheldon, whose novels appealed primarily to women. But the sterling track record of such writers as McMurtry and Stephen King, who has had miniseries hits with “It” and “The Langoliers” at ABC, has emboldened the networks to expand the club to a more eclectic group of authors.

“There’s always been a huge appetite for bestsellers at the networks, but what’s changed is what producers and networks are willing to pay for them,” says Julie Weitz, who heads up long-form programming at ICM. “They know not only what a marquee name over the title can do for ratings, they also know how lucrative the ancillary markets can be overseas.”

“As competition becomes more fierce, with the Big Three battling Fox, cable and other alternatives, everyone’s looking for an edge,” adds Howard Braunstein, a partner in Jaffe/Braunstein Films, which has been one of the most aggressive bidders for TV movie rights. With a bestseller, he notes, “you don’t have to start from ground zero.”

Top-shelf projects

Scanning a list of recent deals shows a definite uptick in top-shelf projects that are going to TV. One recent example is “The Final Judgment,” based on the Richard North Patterson novel, acquired by Jaffe/Braunstein Films for an estimated high-six-figure sum against more than $1 million, to be produced as an NBC miniseries. Jaffe/Braunstein is currently producing a miniseries based on Patterson’s previous two books, “Degree of Guilt” and “Eyes of a Child,” at the Peacock network as well.

In addition, NBC has snapped up “The Long Fatal Love Chase,” the lost novel by Louisa May Alcott that Citadel Entertainment will produce as a four-hour miniseries. The reported price – $600,000.

Meanwhile, CBS has four other multi-parters for the coming season based on novels: Dean Koontz’s “Dark Rivers of the Heart” and Collins’ “Hollywood Kids” (both from CBS Ent. Prods.); Dominick Dunne’s “A Season in Purgatory” (Laurel Ent.); and Sheldon’s “Nothing Lasts Forever” (Gerber/ITC with CBS Ent. Prods.). All those projects are believed to have been bought in the $500,000-$l million range.

According to Braunstein, increased competition explains the increase in prices. “It’s just supply and demand,” he says. “There’s

‘X’ number of bestselling authors.” Many of those properties are produced as miniseries, he adds, because “if you spend a fortune on a book, you’ve got to be able to amortize that, and it’s easier to do that over four hours than two.”

“There’s been a definite change in the market,” says Robert Gottlieb, who heads the literary dept. in the East Coast office of the William Morris Agency, which represents Koontz and Tom Clancy. The latter’s “Op Center” was a hit miniseries last season for NBC. “The networks are increasingly looking to create franchises with authors,” Gottlieb adds.

Take CBS’ budding relationship with Koontz, ABC’s repeated successes (including three straight May sweeps winners) with King, or NBC’s desire to turn “Op Center” into a recurring franchise. According to industry sources, the Peacock web is close to closing a deal for three more Clancy actioners.

“It’s a natural for all concerned to want to build a franchise at a network,” says Richard Green, of Pleshette, Green & Sanders, who represents Richard North Patterson. “Everyone was happy with how (Patterson’s) first project went at NBC, so it’s a natural to be in business with them on the next one.”

CBS had created such a franchise with McMurtry, starting with “Lonesome Dove,” followed by “Return to Lonesome Dove” (which wasn’t based directly on the author’s work), “Buffalo Girls,” and this fall’s “Dove” sequel “Streets of Laredo,” starring James Garner. The Eye network lost out on “Dead Man’s Walk” to ABC, however, after the producers, De Passe Entertainment and Hallmark’s RHI Entertainment, had a falling out with CBS Entertainment brass, according to industry sources.

“CBS was none too happy about losing a franchise they built,” says a source familiar with the “Dead Man’s Walk” negotiations. “But now (former CBS Entertainment president ) Peter Tortorici is out and Les Moonves is in, so we will see what happens with the next McMurtry project ‘Comanche Moon.'”

The only ones sure to win are McMurtry and the producers, because ABC will want to keep the franchise it now has… and CBS will probably want it back. That’s the name of the game. Build a stable of bestselling authors that the audience identifies with your network.”

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